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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South East Asia > Philippines > Southern Philippines Backgrounder: Terrorism and the Peace Process

Southern Philippines Backgrounder: Terrorism and the Peace Process

Asia Report N°80 13 Jul 2004


Persistent reports of links between the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terror network overshadow and put at risk the peace process between the MILF and the Philippine government. While the MILF leadership continues to deny any ties, all evidence points to ongoing operational and training links. What is uncertain is whether top leaders are aware of the activity and unwilling to admit it, or whether members of JI and other like-minded jihadist groups have established their own personal ties to individual MILF commanders without the knowledge of the MILF leadership.

This background report, which continues a series on terrorism in South East Asia, examines the history of the JI-MILF alliance, the depth of its past cooperation and the state of the present relationship. A central paradox of the southern Philippines peace process is that it presents both the main short-term obstacle to rooting out the terrorist network and an indispensable element in any long-term remedy to terror. Attempts to move directly against terrorists embedded in MILF-controlled territory risk an escalation of violence and a breakdown of talks. Yet without a successful peace agreement, the region will continue to be marked by a climate of lawlessness in which terrorism can thrive.

The short-term imperative is to prevent a re-eruption of the war. One possible measure would be to immediately bring into force a mechanism agreed to by both sides in 2002 but never implemented for joint Philippine government-MILF cooperation against criminals taking refuge in MILF areas. This should be strengthened to address foreign terrorists explicitly.

Improving MILF accountability to the peace process in this way could be reciprocated by appointing a full-time, permanent Philippine government peace panel, adequately resourced to build consensus among key stakeholders on the shape of enhanced autonomy.

JI, now notorious for its activities especially in Indonesia, established a foothold in the southern Philippines in 1994, building on ties formed with the secessionist MILF in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Personal relationships between founding MILF chairman Salamat Hashim and JI leaders like Abdullah Sungkar and Zulkarnaen allowed it to set up training camps under MILF protection, replicating the Afghan camp system in which the organisation first took shape, and transferring deadly skills to a new generation of operatives.

As well as replenishing JI ranks in Indonesia depleted by post-Bali arrests, some of these graduates have carried out terror attacks in the Philippines in concert with local elements from the MILF and the Abu Sayyaf Group. ICG information suggests that the architect of many of these recent attacks was a Javanese graduate of the Mindanao camps, named Zulkifli. He was captured in Malaysia in late 2003, but not before overseeing the Davao bombings of March and April 2003, which killed 38 and remain a major obstacle to the peace talks.

The JI-MILF relationship is clearly continuing, but in a much more decentralised fashion. Since the Philippine army overran major MILF camps in 2000, MILF forces have been dispersed into smaller, more autonomous units, sometimes disavowed by the MILF leadership as "lost commands". The MILF has always been loose-knit, but its units became more independent following the offensive of 2000 and after Salamat Hashim's death in July 2003.

It is unclear at this stage how the new MILF leadership around Hashim's successor, Al-Haj Murad, regards the ties to JI. The MILF officially disavows terrorism. Given what is now known about JI-MILF ties, therefore, there are three possible interpretations of this official stance, all of which bode ill for the peace process.

If top MILF leaders engaged in peace negotiations are unaware of local level cooperation with JI or if they follow a "don't ask, don't tell" policy that leaves local commanders to their own devices, the lack of central control suggests it might not be possible to implement an agreement. If at least some top MILF officials are not only aware of JI ties, but see them as a crucial element of a "fight and talk" strategy, the good faith necessary for successful negotiations would be called into question. All three possibilities may be related to factional divisions within the MILF that appear to have deepened since Salamat Hashim's death.

Singapore/Brussels, 13 July 2004